Manny Ramirez may have been playing for the visiting team, but the ovation he received last Thursday in Tainan City, Taiwan, for hitting his first home run in the Chinese Professional Baseball League was thunderous nonetheless. A capacity crowd of 12,000 rose to its feet as the DH for the EDA Rhinos circled the bases after lining a 1--1 pitch from the Uni-President Lions' Kao Chien-san over the centerfield fence in the seventh inning of a 10--7 Lions win. Yes, Ramirez, 40, who signed a three-month, $75,000 contract with the Rhinos on March 12, is a mercenary presence in the four-team, Taiwan-based CPBL—clubs in Japan and South Korea reportedly balked at the idea of taking on his reduced bat speed and two PED suspensions—but that hardly matters to fans looking for an unlikely hero to save their national game. Manny Mania has swept the island.
During the Rhinos' 3--2 road victory over the Brother Elephants in Taipei City on Saturday, fans in the stands at Tianmu Baseball Stadium sported Ramirez jerseys from his stints with the Red Sox and the Dodgers. Others wore dreadlock bandana caps or waved signs to welcome the former MLB star, who was hitting .308. Through the first 21 games of the season, the league had a record average attendance of 10,257—a number also boosted by Taiwan's surprise second-round showing at last month's WBC. Though Ramirez has so far been reticent with the media, sports segments on Taiwanese television consistently lead with updates on his play. When he has talked, he has said all the right things about giving back to the game, nurturing young talent and thanking God for the chance to play in Taiwan. "I don't think about the money and contract," he said at the press conference announcing his signing. "I just think it is a great opportunity for me and the fans."
At Taiwanese baseball's height in the late 1990s, those fans supported 11 teams in two pro leagues—the CPBL and the Taiwan Major League. But that popularity drew the interest of organized crime syndicates and, according to league insiders, their political connections, who began influencing the game by swaying players and managers with cash, cars, drugs and prostitutes as part of an illegal sports-betting industry valued at upwards of $3.4 billion.
Since the CPBL's founding in 1989, professional baseball in Taiwan has been rocked by five match-fixing scandals. The tales of each read like the plots of Hollywood movies. They include fallen heroes, violent mobsters, corrupt politicians and crooked cops, not to mention abductions, beatings, stabbings and pistol whippings of players and managers who either refused to throw games or, worse still, threw them for competing betting syndicates.
Players had guns inserted into their mouths and bullets mailed to their homes. Five teammates thought by gangsters to have thrown a game that cost them thousands were kidnapped, driven to a hideout and repeatedly beaten for their transgression before being released. In 1997 the China Times Eagles were disbanded after nearly their entire roster was found to have been on the take. Two years later Ramirez's current manager, Hsu Sheng-ming, was stabbed four times from behind outside his daughter's school. In 2008 a known mafioso bought into a franchise seemingly with the sole intention of rigging games. Veteran baseball reporters claim that at one point, half the players in the league were throwing games. "The easiest way for a lot of ... politicians to fund a reelection bid was through baseball-fixing," says Richard Hsu, a writer for The Liberty Times, who has covered pro ball on the island since 1997. "Taiwan is politically complex. Lawmakers, county commissioners and mayors have been involved, but nobody had the guts to report about it."
Justifiably, Taiwan earned a reputation for being home to one of the world's most corrupt and violent sports leagues. Television ratings began to fall off, and corporate sponsors departed for fear of being tainted by the gangsterism that plagued the game. By 2012 average ballpark attendance was only about 2,400; in 1992 it had been close to 7,000. The league faced extinction last year when the Rhinos (then known as the Sinon Bulls) announced they wanted out—a move that would have reduced the league to three teams—until E United Group, a steel company that owns shopping malls and theme parks in the gritty southern port city of Kao-hsiung, stepped in to buy the club.
Fan dissatisfaction reached such a height that in 2009, Taiwan's president, Ma Ying-jeou, spearheaded a baseball revitalization plan that included stricter sentencing guidelines for match fixing. Previously, offenders had escaped prison time by paying a fine. Today, officials from the Taiwan High Prosecutors Office are assigned to each of the CPBL's four teams, and the Criminal Investigation Bureau—Taiwan's version of the FBI—monitors stadiums and teams for illegal activity. The league has also beefed up its own security, assigning a detail to each club, and runs seminars for players about the real threats lurking beyond the ballparks.
"I heard about some of the crazy things that were happening," says Rhinos outfielder Hu Chin-lung, who played with Ramirez in Los Angeles. "Now we have a curfew and the security is good. It's getting better. But you can't really go out, because the mafia could follow you. You have to be smart."
Manny Mania may have a tougher time taking hold if Ramirez opts out of his contract after his three months. It might face an even greater challenge if the gangs that controlled the game for so long return in search of all the new money. "When we were down and nobody came to the games, the gangsters never showed up," says Richard Wang, the CPBL's director of international affairs. "We realize that when the fans come back, the mob tries to as well."
Cain Nunns is a freelance journalist based in Taipei.